In New York City, street co-namings—in which a thoroughfare takes on an additional, ceremonial name in honor of a distinguished figure—rarely generate much fuss, and their approval is typically pro forma. But yesterday, a city council committee voted to co-name a street in Brooklyn after Jean-Jacques Dessalines, emperor of Haiti after the island won its independence from France in 1804.
The council’s designation of a two-mile stretch of Rogers Avenue in Brooklyn as Jean-Jacques Dessalines Boulevard sparked some controversy because Dessalines was an enthusiastic advocate of racial murder. Following the defeat of Napoleon’s forces and their retreat from Hispaniola, Dessalines named himself Governor-General-for-Life and decided to wipe the slate clean. Heeding the words of his personal secretary Louis Boisrond-Tonnerre, framer of the Haitian Act of Independence, who declaimed, “we should use the skin of a white man as a parchment, his skull as an inkwell, his blood for ink, and a bayonet for a pen,” Dessalines ordered the murder of virtually every white man, followed soon afterward by all white women and children, in the new nation. Between 3,000 and 5,000 people were butchered in a few months.
This barbarism came as a coda to a vicious revolutionary war, one attended by savage acts against a slave population fighting for its liberty. So it is perhaps not for us to condemn the early Haitian leaders. But do we need to celebrate them?
In almost every case, New York City street co-namings are reserved for deceased locals who have made a mark on the community. Civic leaders, business people, clergy, firefighters who died on 9/11—the designations are small honoraria marking a place where someone who mattered once passed by. “Every year,” explains the city council website, “Council Members pass bills to co-name streets in honor of residents and organizations that have had an impact on our City’s cultural, political, and economic life.” In 2017, for instance, there were 148 co-namings. “EMT Yadira Arroyo Way” at the corner of East 168th Street and the Boston Post Road in the Bronx memorializes an emergency worker killed when a deranged man stole her ambulance and ran her over; “Annie Beveridge Way” in Staten Island memorializes a beloved science teacher and zookeeper. The co-named street list includes no known warlords, self-proclaimed emperors, or foreign genocidaires.
The Dessalines episode is rooted in the ongoing national debate about monuments for historical personages whose records, in light of today’s standards, are mixed. Calls have resounded in recent years—and especially last summer—for a cull of American historical statues, lest the past offend the present. Some local politicians have demanded that the names of slaveholders (Cortelyou, Stuyvesant, Lefferts, among others), be removed from streets and schools, and that the Columbus Circle monument be taken down.
By Governor Cuomo’s decree, New York City has removed its few Confederate monuments: busts of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee were taken from their places of honor in the Stanford White-designed colonnade at the once-famous Hall of Fame for Great Americans in the Bronx. A small plaque affixed to a maple tree planted by Lee in Bay Ridge was removed, too. A public design commission, named to review monuments and toponyms across the city, recommended only that a statue of J. Marion Sims be removed from its seat in Central Park, across from the New York Academy of Medicine. Sims was a revolutionary gynecologist who pioneered surgical techniques to repair vaginal fistulas, but he used slave women as experimental subjects, without giving them anesthesia. His statue was relocated to the Brooklyn cemetery where he is buried.
Rodneyse Bichotte, a Brooklyn member of the state assembly who claims direct descent from Dessalines, defended the excesses of the Haitian revolutionaries as a legitimate response to oppression, and said that Dessalines “sought to stop those who were evil.” She also made pointed reference to “George Washington, the first President of this great mighty state, who sold slaves for a keg of molasses,” and “our beloved Abraham Lincoln, who expressed opposition to racial equality.” Jumaane Williams, the council member who sponsored the co-naming legislation, said that “most of the world owes a debt to Haiti that has never been repaid.” Considering the insulting remarks toward Haiti made by the “orange bigot in the White House,” he said, the co-naming of Rogers Avenue is “the least we can do.”
One Republican member of the council who voted in favor of the co-naming indicated that he sees the act as a form of insurance to protect Columbus’s status. But the Left doesn’t seek compromises. Now that the city council has conceded to honor Dessalines, there’s no telling what other monsters of history might emerge, demanding their version of justice.